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Zhou Yongkang’s Mask of Fear Falls Quietly Away

Zhou Yongkang—erstwhile oil czar, former chief of China’s dreaded state security apparatus, a man once swaggering and fit enough to perform 50 to 100 pushups in front of fawning onlookers—has completed his transformation into a sad historical footnote. On June 11, China learned the man it once feared will spend the rest of his life in prison when the Number One Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin, a large city near Beijing, handed Zhou his fate for corruption and abuse of power, both on a staggering scale. As the chief judge read the verdict aloud, his hands visibly shook. But Zhou already looked neutralized. What struck observers most profoundly was not the long prison term awaiting him, but the shock of heretofore-unseen grey hair on his head.

While it’s true that age is venerated in China, its leaders nonetheless make every effort to appear strapping—late Communist Party strongman Mao Zedong is famed for having swam the roiling Yangtze River. In the coded language of Chinese politics, there could be no more fitting image of Zhou’s swift passage from colossus to cipher than the simple change in hue. For even mid-level Chinese bureaucrats, assiduous maintenance of a dark mane is part of the standard uniform of power. Zhou appearing without it is the state’s way of saying that it can deny him anything.

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That includes a soapbox. Zhou’s trial was closed to the public, a sharp turnabout from the quasi-public trial of Bo Xilai in August 2013, another high-flying politician now imprisoned for corruption. Although Bo’s trial was not shown live, some details emerged via official court accounts on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Those materials quoted Bo speaking in his own defense, and even cross-examining witnesses testifying against him. Then again, Bo had built something of a fan base in China’s south, where he governed the megacity of Chongqing by fear and patronage. By contrast, Zhou, who has few if any defenders left, was shown on China Central Television (CCTV)’s flagship news broadcast, Xinwen Lianbo, bowing his head and reading from prepared remarks. “I accept the judgment of the court; I will not appeal,” Zhou intoned. “I admit the facts of my illegal conduct, and the harm I have done to the party enterprise.” He is not shown apologizing for any harm he may have done to the rest of China.

Chinese state media may not have hid the news—doing so would only lend it the alluring aura of the forbidden—but it has been careful to signal that whatever happens to Zhou is far less important than what President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are doing today. CCTV news positioned the story third in the night’s lineup. Xi’s meeting with Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi led the broadcast, followed by Li’s attendance at a meeting on food safety. A commentary that followed the Zhou news emphasized that Xi and the Party center have treated corruption “with life and death seriousness.” It’s best, the remarks seem to imply, to forget about Zhou and look toward the future.

The collective shrug greeting the final thud in Zhou’s long descent undoubtedly constitutes a victory for China’s information-control apparatus.

The collective shrug greeting the final thud in Zhou’s long descent undoubtedly constitutes a victory for China’s information-control apparatus, which has been engaged in a subtle and ongoing effort to push Zhou into irrelevance. It learned a lesson from Bo’s ouster—while that marked another major political victory for Xi, it also caused a sensation on social media, one the state seemed unable to control. By contrast, Party-led media has been gradually dribbling out signals of Zhou’s inevitable political doom since early 2014. That strategy has created an air of inevitability, even banality, around each successive lurch toward the historical dustbin, from Zhou’s house arrest, to his expulsion from Party ranks, to his indictment, trial, and swift sentencing.

The only superlatives in state reports centered on the staggering quantities of lucre involved. Zhou amassed at least $21 million worth of bribes and helped others rake in another $344 million by abusing his position, according to reports, while his wife and son together agglomerated money and property worth about $129 million. Zhou also caused $240 million in what state media called “economic damage,” and purposefully leaked five top-secret documents (none of which caused serious harm). Zhou did not reportedly contest any of the charges. He wasn’t sentenced to death, state media wrote, because he had admitted his crimes, assisted the investigation against him, and successfully persuaded family members to return their spoils.

Chinese authorities have not censored all mentions of Zhou, but they certainly have axed some, captured on the mirror site Freeweibo.com. Among them are expressions of surprise that Zhou was not sentenced to death. But there was also more on Zhou’s hair. “The number of years of his sentence, or even whether he was sentenced to death, ultimately don’t matter to China’s law, politics, or future,” wrote one user who claims to be a policeman from the mid-sized city of Xuzhou. “I just think it’s a shame he doesn’t have a head of black hair anymore.” The user quoted Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel about the jostling of feudal lords for primacy in post-Han dynasty China. The police officer used a phrase from the book describing an elderly but evil minister of court: a “white haired weasel, a gray bearded bandit.” Zhou, he implied, was never anything more than that.

Alexa Olesen contributed research.